Palm Beach County is not Wisconsin
On Tuesday, a sea of yellow shirts packed the commission chambers. None of the shirt wearers, who are members of IAFF local 2928 as well as employees of County Fire Rescue, took the podium to speak. That wasn’t why they were there. As acting union President Ricky Grau spoke in favor of “three men on a truck” and accused the county of understating the amount of reserves they have to spend, the sea of yellow shirts were there to send a not so subtle message to the commissioners.
What was the issue that brought out the troops? They objected to the action taken by Chief Steve Jerauld and Fire Rescue leadership in April to reduce the staffing on some EMS vehicles from three to two under some circumstances. This has reduced the amount of paid overtime. The Chief has assured the Commissioners and the public that in no way had public safety been compromised by this move. The savings are estimated to be $7.8M per year. Although no vote was taken, and only Karen Marcus and Burt Aaronson spoke strongly in favor of restoring the three man crews, staff took that as marching orders and agreed to spend the extra money.
None of this discussion involves any increase in millage or other revenue enhancement, and we believe that drawing down “excessive” reserves – stipulated by all sides to be “at least” $50M is the right thing to do. We also agree with Commissioner Marcus that IF the county policy is indeed “three men/women on a truck”, then it makes more operational and fiscal sense to fully staff the positions rather than paying overtime to a reduced staff. But should a bona fide attempt by the Chief to save taxpayer money by increasing efficiency at no risk to public safety be so quickly rebuffed?
The IAFF is a political force in the county and elected officials cross them at their own risk. The Fire Rescue collective bargaining agreement expired last September and they are currently working without a contract after a year of “negotiations” that led nowhere. Both sides (to their credit) were not suggesting pay increases in this economy, yet a county proposal for a 22% reduction in starting salary for new hires was never even acknowledged by the union. To see the Commissioners buckle over a truck staffing rule before the yellow shirted troops does not bode well for any substantive discussions in the future.
Fire Rescue funding is headed for a showdown when the reserves can no longer be tapped. As some cities are near their millage caps, the Fire Rescue millage has been flat since 2010 and revenue has trended down with property valuations. Spending on the other hand, mostly driven by escalating personal service costs built into the existing contract, contines to rise. Something has to give. We think the overly generous pay and benefits (compared to Fire Rescue national averages) need to be addressed. That is not likely in the game plan though and it would not surprise us to hear more talk of sales tax surcharges in the years to come.
Wisconsin was a wake up call to the public employee unions. Perhaps some of Governor Walker’s courage will rub off on our elected officals too.
For the Palm Beach Post editorial on the subject by Andrew Marra, see: Fire-Rescue headed for a financial emergency